Never did I think I would be spending a Sunday writing this impromptu blog about Anti-Bullying Week. After a morning walk visit my little brother at the cemetery. I didn’t think I had the emotional capacity to write this but I had to. Between sipping a cappuccino and tucking into a festive brie and cranberry sandwich, I saw the hashtag #AntiBullyingWeek trending on socials. For me, and many others this was a painful reminder of our experience of being bullied. Against the backdrop of the allegations faced by former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, it just felt appropriate to pen this.
What is Anti-Bullying Week?
Founded by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Anti-Bullying Week aims to raise awareness and empower the victims of bullying. During this week in November, all establishments including schools are asked to reflect on their policies and practices, as well as consider the wider impacts of bullying. The Anti-Bullying Alliance have been keen to promote conversations about bullying to support those suffering in silence.
As schools up and down the country commemorate this week, there are a number of important messages we can take from this week. Ultimately, that bullying is unacceptable in all walks of life and it can destroy lives and livelihoods. We do need to talk about it more and protect its victims. As important as it is to mark milestones and commemorative weeks, we must remember that bullying happens every day. Scars of bullying live with their victims forever and anti-bullying practices cannot be a peripheral ‘download a swanky PowerPoint, let’s tick a box’ sort of activity. Just as we need to be actively anti-racist, we also need to be active in our anti-bullying work. It must embedded into the social fabric of our organisations, and into every interaction we have.
What is bullying?
According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, bullying is:
‘the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online.’
This definition is very broad because bullying involves a series of almost an infinite number of nuanced interactions. Bullying is rarely overt and in plain sight. Think about it, would bullies behave the way they do if there were a number of people to witness their behaviour? How many times have you heard ‘well, I’ve never seen them behave like that towards you.’ Bullying is calculated, callous and insidious behaviour.
Bullying in education
You know what, I believe bullying is rife in education. I walked into the profession thinking that we all had a common goal; to educate and inspire young people. The thought of teachers bullying teachers never crossed my mind until I stepped into the classroom. Oh, my naivety.
Year upon year, teaching unions and charities publish reports that ‘x% of teachers and education staff say they’ve experienced bullying in the last 12 months.’ The fact that we are amidst one of the worst teaching retention crisis, ever, it speaks volumes of where the profession is at. Let me make this clear, not every teacher leaves the classroom because of bullying but I do firmly believe many do. You just need to go on to the Life After Teaching Facebook page which has over 100,000 members. The stories on that particular page are absolutely shocking. This is alongside the wave of dialogue, CPD, books and podcasts about well-being in education.
People are forced to walk away from a job they love whilst the injustice continues. I still remember hearing about a Head of Department who had a ‘hit list’ of colleagues they disliked and said they gained ‘pleasure’ from seeing people cry. The outrage felt in my heart when they were promoted to ITT Co-ordinator/ECT Mentor. If ever a role was unsuitable for someone, it was this.
I don’t want to be unduly pessimistic but here are just a few examples of behaviours in schools I have witnessed or my colleagues have given me permission to share:
After being off ill, I was asked to attend a meeting with SLT where several colleagues allegedly saw me in the supermarket. SLT presented photos taken by my colleagues of me shopping for medication. The invasion of privacy was unreal.
My mentor repeatedly shouted at me in front of my class
My head of department called me a ‘worthless piece of shit’ and then continued to use this phrase until I left
A senior colleague told a group of pupils I was on anti-depressants and spread other rumours about my personal health including a miscarriage
I was repeatedly told that I would not have a job next year if my results didn’t improve, this is despite having unrealistic targets including a 100% 5-9 pass rate with two low-ability bottom-set classes
HR hauled me into a meeting 30 times and every time I was made to cry after demeaning, rude and horrible comments about how I look
My head of faculty told me that my headscarf was ‘threatening’ to pupils and said I should practice my faith in other ways
I was placed on capability and despite meeting all my targets, I remained on capability. Every time I presented evidence of meeting a target, the target was changed and goalposts were moved.
Again, I have only chosen a handful of examples to share and not all schools are like this. And these are not a set of isolated events, but rather there has been a culture that has empowered and enabled these behaviours to unchallenged. It is systemic. Yet, for us to celebrate all that is great about our profession, we need to find spaces to discuss the obstacles that prevent us from blossoming.
Some things to ponder
As a point of reference ahead of anti-bullying week, here are some points of reflection for you.
Does your school have a fair and transparent complaints procedure?
Do staff have access to your school’s anti-bullying policy?
Is your anti-bullying policy inclusive?
How can your support colleagues who have experienced/are experiencing bullying?
Beyond anti-bullying week, how do we intend on establishing or modifying our anti-bullying ethos?
In terms of staff well-being, what are you doing to retain staff?
Do staff in your school feel safe, respected and valued?
Is there a culture in your school one where you can safely challenge one another?
Is the behaviour we are inhabiting the same ones we would want our pupils to inhabit?
Before we speak, ask yourself ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
Finally, this isn’t a normal sort of blog from me. I will forever retain the belief that bullying is rife in education. We must behave the way we encourage others to behave. So, as you plan your assemblies and download your PowerPoints, ask yourself ‘does my school truly have an anti-bullying ethos?’
If you are struggling at work, I have found the following organisations enormously supportive.
I think eventually we learn to smile at the memory of those who are gone.
Small Circle, Big Heart: 78
Grief, loss, love and life as a bereaved sibling.
I know your initial reaction will be ‘has it been six months already?’ My PC reply is ‘yes’ but deep down I want to say ‘It still feels like yesterday to me.’
Six months ago. As Ramadan drew to a close, we spent the entire month dashing between home and the hospital. Little did we expect that we would be spending Eid day (May 2nd) at the cemetery burying my little brother, Kasim. I never once thought Kasim was going to die. It isn’t something that ever crossed my mind. It’s inconceivable how someone can be diagnosed with leukaemia and then pass away five weeks later. There are still so many questions.
One of the faintest memories from that bitterly cold day in May was watching my father bury his son and then later stand beside my Mum at Kasim’s graveside. It is both poignant and heartbreaking. The most unfathomable pain that no parent should ever have to experience. Kasim meant the world to them.
In my piece for the East-Anglia Bylines, I’ve written about Life as a Forgotten Mourner, and spoke about the unique co-history that is authored by siblings. No one talks about sibling grief and I have always found existing grief spaces not very inclusive. Even when I penned The Endless Cost of Loveabout grandchild grief, I knew these spaces were few and few and far between. Yet, I felt it important to commemorate the six-month milestone of Kasim’s passing, as it is just this; a milestone. After a lifetime of loving him, now we’re faced with a lifetime of missing him.
Also, having listened to the Diary of a CEO where Steven Bartlett spoke to Gary Neville, I was taken aback by the conversation between these two. Neville mentioned something about losing a loved one who is younger than us and it struck a chord. So much so, I wrote it out and felt like it needed to be in this piece.
It is important to remember that on most days grief is still. We can pre-empt and prepare for birthdays or anniversaries but on any other given day, the whirlwind that is grief can rear its head at any time. Rather innocuously it sits beside us as we go about our worldly affairs. Then, as soon as a small memory is triggered. That innocuous little thing becomes so overwhelming. And it’s these little things that we miss the most about those who are gone. Also, as we approach the seventh anniversary of Grandad passing away, it just felt right to pen this blog.
Six months, six lessons
The past six months have been enormously challenging. All the things I took for granted have come to the surface. From solid foundations, I now stand amidst the quagmire. Losing a loved one is not a singular event, it is an eternity of existing with their absence. Not only am I grieving the life that was lost, I also grieve the living that Kasim should have been able to do. But with this has come a lot of self-reflection and I have been learning so much that I would like to share with you. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but let’s go.
We don’t talk about resentment enough
Grief that is invalidated or not even acknowledged creates a feeling of resentment like no other. It is the proverbial double-whammy. A simple ‘I’m sorry to hear about your loss’ is what, seven words? This statement is the lowest hanging fruit! It doesn’t require you to do anything radical. Seven words that, for someone whose world has fallen apart, would mean so much.
Grief is complex and I understand not everyone wants to talk about it or has the capacity to hold these difficult conversations. How often do I hear ‘people don’t say anything because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing’? This is true but by not acknowledging our loss, you overlook our relationship with the ones we have lost. Our emotions are already heightened when we’re grieving. To have to deal with a lack of compassion too, it’s awful
This feeling of resentment was perpetuated when the Queen died and the nation was in mourning. Everyone appeared to bow their head and revel in the sense of loss felt by the Royals. Yet, during the pandemic were met with comments like ‘did they have underlying health conditions?’ and ‘well, at least they reached xx years of age.’ Our sense of grief was hugely invalidated and this does create resentment. To me, Kasim was royalty but I’m expected to mourn someone who I have never met? It isn’t my job to make you feel comfortable about my grief, just as it isn’t my fault I’ve lost a loved one. Also, why should I feel guilty about your lack of self-awareness? Everything changes when we stop apologising for our grief.
And it isn’t about counting how many condolence cards you got or didn’t get. We can get over that but to show no compassion, that unforgivable. It leaves us with the feeling of ‘I genuinely cannot understand what I did to deserve this’ – as in the lack of empathy. I just hope that you don’t ever let someone with the feeling that you could have done more for them.
Again, the resentment that having your grief and trauma invalidated is like no other. And this comes from someone who isn’t particularly resentful but with invalidation, we are left with a really bitter taste in our mouth.
The updated versions of ourselves
Grief has transformative powers. We are no longer the same person we were before we lost a loved one and that needs to be respected and accommodating for. Grief changes everything and we are in a constant battle to make sense of the world around us that has, itself become so complex and confusing. I’ve seen my timelines change and my address book shrink as not everyone has understood, let alone embraced my sense of loss. This has reinforced my view that not everyone deserves access to this updated version of us.
As already mentioned, our emotions begin to peak when we grieve. With this, we become more energy conscious. My grief has made me more protective over my own energy and time. You could even say I’m more selfish with these two crucial aspects of my inner world. I often scroll the social media and think ‘is it worth it?’ before I comment on a specific issue. I also get ‘you unfriended/unfollowed me’ or ‘you’re quiet’ a lot too. Yes, because A. when was the last time we had a meaningful interaction? and B. this is the updated version of me and I am protecting my peace and grieving.
Just think of all the one-way, thankless, rarely reciprocated empty emotionally draining relationships and connections we invest in. Whether these are with family, friends or colleagues – they have shown you they don’t deserve access to this updated version of you. So, you must check out and stop investing so much into them. Life is too short. Kasim’s life has taught me to focus on those who really matter and those who deserve access to this updated version of ourselves.
And don’t worry. There are plenty of people who will see your grief and support you because they are grieving too. You don’t have to keep reintroducing yourself to this special of people. They see and your grief and love you for it. They share a universal bond. A language spoken by only those who love so deeply it hurts just as much.
Empathy fatigue is very real
When Kasim died, he was all I ever wanted to talk about. I brought him into every conversation and grief accompanied me in every interaction. This went on for weeks and weeks. It was almost like I was wearing an enormous sandwich board reading ‘my brother died’ in the hope this would be acknowledged or understood.
People get tired of hearing about trauma. It can be enormously triggering for them which can lead them eventually not caring. It is a defence mechanism and if we’re all trying to protect our peace. Naturally, people become exhausted from hearing about grief. This happened right throughout the pandemic too. We pull away and take a step back to protect ourselves. This means our behaviour may come across as ‘cold’ or uncaring.
For me, empathy fatigue, often comes with an infinite number of ways for people to regurgitate the same old unsolicited advice. And I know you’re tired of hearing about my grief but I am shattered feeling it too.
For all those who scroll past and think ‘he’s talking about his brother again’ there will be people who are empowered to find the courage to do the same to commemorate their loved ones. When you are ready, I’ll be there listen too, mate. There is so much grief out there and only until experience yourself will you understand the sheer magnitude of loss people are facing.
Grief brain really does exist
This is a phenomena that I rarely considered. In the early weeks after Kasim passed away, I kept telling myself ‘get it together.’ I filled my diary with all sorts. It is because of my time in the classroom. Teachers love busy work! But, from that day in May, I lost all sense of routine.
I was numb, disorientated, in a daze and losing my train of thought. I am normally pretty good at coping with stress and walking away from triggering situations. From incessant typos, to forgetting what day of the week it was, I realised the cognitive impact grief can have on us. There are so many more examples of this as well. The times I kept logging out of my work emails when I needed them open, to forgetting every pin code and password that I had remembered down to a T. This is grief brain.
Grief brain really does exist. Some studies prove this too. Rational judgments and decisions are thrown out of the window. I found simple tasks like hoovering the living room overwhelming. There would be times I would stare into blank spaces where I felt like I had left the universe completely. To a stranger, social media timeline would look confusing. A mix of socially conscious posts and outcries of grief. In reality, this was just a reflection of the brain fog I am suffering from since May. It has all been a blur to be honest.
There’s no way we can walk away from a traumatic event and still be the same person. This would be disrespectful to the trauma and ourselves. Experiencing the sudden loss of a loved one leaves you in shock and the turmoil carries on. To think the statutory ten days of compassionate leave is enough is just mind-blowing.
Grief affects our memory, concentration and cognition. The brain can only handle so much sadness, loss, stress and hurt. Go gentle on yourself because once the clouds have passed, there will be clearer skies.
Don’t forget about yourself
I’ve had pneumonia and let’s not get it twisted, this is because for months on end I have failed to look after myself. Being swallowed up by grief means that we forget about our basic human needs. Trivial things like drinking water and sleeping on time tend to go out the window when grief begins to rent a permanent piece of real estate in our hearts and minds. I don’t think we realise how physically and emotionally tiring grief is. I’m absolutely exhausted.
Grief and stress can have an impact on our physical health. It can attack our immune system. There is a synergy between mental, emotional and physical health. If you neglect one aspect of this, they are all affected. How long did I think I could go living off a diet of Lucozade, late nights and being totally disconnected from the world? It was unsustainable and until my body said ‘enough’ I probably would have carried on making wellbeing a peripheral part of my existence.
After skimming through Dr Lisa Schulman’s Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief and Our Brain, the research is stark. There is an increased risk of various conditions, illnesses and diseases as a result of grief. A weakened immune system is so easily breached. Our body has endured the most immeasurable emotional pain. To think the other elements of our wellbeing haven’t also been affected, was pure naivety on my behalf.
I don’t ever mean to patronise my readers or preach unsolicited advice but my poor health is linked to the loss of Kasim. We must look after ourselves to take care of our loved ones. Go back to the very basics like I have. Try having breakfast and going for a walk. Gradually you will develop a routine and this doesn’t mean your grief will go away. Within this routine, we can live on in the memory of those who are gone.
Watch out for the pockets of kindness
Amidst all the unsolicited advice, empathy fatigue and a sheer lack of compassion, there have been what I like to call ‘pockets of kindness.’ When we lost Kasim, I went into recluse mode. I checked out. I cut my engagements and the waves of grief were so intense, I could not see past the sadness. In the grand scheme of things, everything seemed so trivial. You see, with the loss of a loved one, we become blind to the subtle beauty in the world.
The number of people who have from time to time sent a ‘thinking of you message’, to those who have purchased a copy of my debut anthology – Small Circle, Big Heart, it is them who have restored my faith in people. We need to look really look closely for these pockets of kindness but they around us all the time. For all those who abandon us during our hardships, there will be those who don’t give up on us.
And Kasim was a huge optimist who believed in people. As I learn more and more about him as well as myself in his absence, I am just grateful. Grateful that although I’ve felt lonely, I have not been alone. It is small things that count.
The greatest gift I have been given is time and space. Time to process all that has happened this year and the space to reflect. To those who have facilitated these spaces, thank you. Whether or not we are bounded by this universal language of grief, a grief ally is an ally for life. Grief has this paradoxical ability to help us connect. It’s those connections that we will cherish. Your kindness will never be forgotten, akhi.
Just the other day 93 ‘Til Infinity was playing on the radio and I thought of Kasim. I was watching Extreme Couponing and reached out to call you and it hit me again. This happens all the time. It’s merely a reminder that love, like grief becomes distilled; purer over time. Even as I tweeted yesterday, placing a new border around Kasim’s grave left me with the constant thought of ‘we should be decorating your house, not your grave.’ That hollow feeling isn’t going away. I know he’s everywhere I go and that he’s in a better place but gosh I miss him so much.
It has been a surreal year. One where the lessons have come thick and fast. In the absence of Kasim, the aim is always to honour his memory. I will leave a link to my debut anthology collection, Small Circle, Big Heart. A book that has been written in the memory and legacy of Grandpa, Hajji Mohammed Yaqoob and Kasim Akeel Saied Khan. The royalties will be donated to the charities Education Support, COVID: AID and Blood Cancer UK. If we can prevent one family from suffering what we went through, that would make such a difference.
But honestly, not a day or a moment goes by where I don’t think of Kasim.
Hello, It’s been a while. My apologies for the silence. No way did I intend on neglecting my blog for so long but life gets in the way. Everyone has their own outlet. Some do Yoga, others run but I write. When I’m feeling something or another, I write. So, here I am trying to articulate something. This one is criminally brief.
In the first weeks of March, our lives were turned upside down. Ramadan was quickly approaching but this year was not like the others. The family were hit with the news that a loved one had been diagnosed with leukaemia. I don’t think the shock has quite sunk in and to this day, it still feels like a bad dream that we will wake up from. You see, behind every door there is pain. Even those who appear to have it all together, are going through something. Some of us broadcast our pain, others don’t but either way, our grievances are all valid.
It felt right to tell the world. My little brother Kasim’s diagnosis hit the family hard. I wanted everyone to know his name and his story. Someone who has inspired me and with his witty comments and sense of humour, the world deserves to know his name. The fully intended to stay off social media for Ramadan as a part of my digital detox. Yet, just as I couldn’t remain silent on what was happening at Al-Aqsa, this is what I do. I write hard about what hurts. This is a massive test for my family and our commitment to our faith too.
I have also watched on as one of my heroes in education has watched her husband suffer from cancer and now, perhaps more so than ever, I resonate with her words. Thank you, Ruth. Pete is in my prayers, always.
Again, when I am in pain, I pick up the pen. There’s no greater pain than watching a loved one suffering. Someone you grew up with, shared the fondest of memories with and someone who deserves to be celebrated. So, here are a few of my thoughts and reflections. Many of these have been formed through scribbles on napkins, voice messages between late night hospital runs and opening fasts with chewing gum. This is messy. It is a blur. I just hope it resonates as I know many who have been through the same situation will understand.
The sanctity of life How does someone go from being fine to being in ICU so quickly? We literally went from being sat together talking about football and other miscellaneous rubbish, to now seeing him in ICU. We didn’t get a second to catch our breath, Kasim. It all happened so quickly. All life is precious. Kasim’s illness has made me realise that we take so much for granted. In the blink of an eye, it is almost like all that was solid, all the moorings that kept us in place had been melted into thin air. I found myself sitting in the waiting room with other families and loved ones, all with their own stories and hurt. All trying to muster up enough strength just to be there for someone they love. All clinging onto hope. All praying and struggling. We get one life. It passes by so quickly. Do the things you love. Tell a loved one you care. Call that family member who it’s awkward with that you’re there for them. Don’t allow hate or grudges to consume any more of your existence. Perspective is everything. Oh life, how precious are you?
In a crisis, broken relationships always come to the surface This is a general observation. When we have to bite the proverbial bullet, swallow our pride, bury the hatchet and come together during a crisis, the broken and un-mended relationships always appear. Those broken relationships carry a sense of trauma and grief like no other. When we are forced to face them for the greater good or in the name of ‘family’, they can be enormously triggering. Many of these broken relationships are the result of unexpressed love or unspoken grievances. They fester, they perpetuate and they never go away. Exactly how we mend them, I don’t know but they need tending to. I hope and pray you can work on them, or if not, they no longer have the power to dictate our lives. Ameen.
The knobs appear During any difficult time, the resident knobheads pop up, don’t they? Whether it’s questions about your weight, marital status, fertility or whatever, these have a sixth sense or a crisis, right? They always turn up. Always. As clearly, what we all need during our darkest moments is for someone, who we hardly speak to or know to subject us to their unsolicited, unnecessary, uncalled for, and unkind advice, vitriol and bull shit. Again, as clearly, they’ve got all their shit together, right? Don’t be that knob. I’m going to just leave it with this quote by Paulo Coelho ‘everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.’
No one cares until everyone cares This is always an observation I have made. I know our culture. I know we can’t hold certain conversations and that we are, well, quite frankly atrocious about talking about certain things. Whether it is a terminal illness, loss, grief, or mental health, I could go on and on. Just like the knobs, I find that some people think it is wholly appropriate to contact you during a crisis. How many people begin to initiate contact after months or years without contact as soon as they know you’re in a crisis? Why do we wait for a crisis to make this contact? Then you, through no fault of your own, feel the pressure to have to explain all the things that have happened in your life since the last time they contacted you. In this process, we have to relive traumas because they chose to be absent from our lives. They made this choice and now feel like they can just walk back in, like all the silent suffering you’ve been through should just be ignored? That you must drop everything and answer every question and make time for them because you now fit them and their narrative. That’s on them, not on you. It doesn’t add up, does it? They chose to be absent, now you must choose to not respond. You didn’t care then and you don’t care now. This isn’t ignorance, arrogance or uncaring. This is how boundaries are formed. Form those boundaries.
Asking someone how they are on a regular basis and without an agenda, it really is the lowest hanging fruit. The very least we can do. It is time to normalise asking people how they are.
Life goes on Since Kasim received his diagnosis, the most heart-breaking thing is that life never stops and nor should it. Our lives feel like they have been frozen and we’re in some sort of snow globe. I remember when we lost our Grandpa back in 2015, the world never waited for us to stop grieving. People moved on. No one pauses at your grief. Sometimes I feel guilty at smiling or even doing something as banal as making myself a meal because Kasim can’t do it right now. The tragedy of grief is that life goes on. We still need to get up every day, shower, eat, work and everything else. Life goes on.
I appreciate this isn’t the usual sort of writing you expect from me. Nothing will ever take away the pain of how we feel right now. But I find comfort in a story my Grandpa used to share. Whenever we faced a challenge or adversity, he always asked us to take a step back. To carefully rationalise and analyse the issue and then find a solution. He would ask, ‘is it a boulder or a pebble?’ Kasim is facing the biggest battle of his life right now and the immeasurable pain of being an older sibling and being unable to help him sits so heavy on my heart. But, I know this boy. This isn’t a boulder, little brother. It is a pebble.
Insha’Allah when you are home, the Irn Bru is on me. Please could I ask whoever this blog reaches to keep Kasim in your prayers and where you can, please donate to Kasim’s Justgiving page.
Don’t be afraid. We have not forgotten that they died. You will not remind us by bringing them up. By speaking of them, you remind us that they mattered. And that is such a gift
Mira Simone @newmoonmira
Hello, It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? My apologies for not blogging in so long. I think writing for a living and just allowing time for reflection does that. So, last year I penned a piece called the Endless Cost of Love. This was my take on grief and the lessons it has taught me but I find myself a year on with new lessons. I’m here to share.
Grief takes over our sensory system like nothing else. It can be triggered by certain smells, colours, songs, phrases, I could go on. This blog is inspired by the Sad Book where Michael Rosen writes about the sadness he felt at the loss of his son. This is such a poignant little book which captures so many emotions relating to grief so eloquently. I would also like to mention Susie Flintham and Jo Gooding from COVID Justice UK. Thank you.
Rarely does a day go by where I don’t think about Grandad. In the South-Asian community, the significance of grandparents cannot go unnoticed. whereas , typically parents are the providers, grandparents do much of the emotional labour. The bond between grandparents and the grandchildren is pure, unconditional and deep. Looking back to November 13th 2015, when I was at my beloved Lodge Park Academy in Corby for my first PGCE placement, the dreaded phone call was indeed life changing. However, the grief merely began that day and continues to live with me. Whenever the daily figures for the number of COVID-19 deaths are published, I find myself standing in that hospital waiting room watching the brave Doctors and Nurses tend to our dying Grandfather. This isn’t an emotion I can wipe away, get over or just leave, it will live with me and learning to accept this and embrace the empathy grief has brought to my life is now part of my journey.
As I go through my phone and see the dozens of inspirational quotes friends and family have sent over the years, I’m still numb. The post of the Stages of Grief model by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is everyone’s go to. The same model that Kübler-Ross later regretted ever writing the stages and did not want it to be the universal veneer from which loss is conceptualised. But, the past 12 months have taught me some new lessons about loss which I would like to share.
Listening is the purest form of love.
By this I mean active listening where we seek to understand before we respond and only respond once we have empathised and understood. Someone who is grieving doesn’t expect you to have the answers as they don’t have the answers themselves. They aren’t expecting you to change their life as life for them has been turned upside down. We all long to be listened to and have our thoughts and feelings valued and respected. This year I have learnt that before we listen and learn we have to learn to listen. Listening without judgement is the purest form of love. Although you may never fully understand the depth of someone’s loss, acknowledge that they are walking through the most difficult journey of their lives. We can be part of that journey and listening is the guiding hand they need the most.
Grievers are often made to feel like a burden but it is a special gift for someone to say, ‘I know you’re hurting and although I can’t fix your pain, I can help lessen the burden you feel by listening’.
Avoiding unsolicited advice
I did a podcast a few weeks ago about fertility issues in teaching. This taboo topic, much like grief, draws so much unsolicited advice. Again, another podcast I completed with Michael McLennan from the charity COVID Aid, we spoke about how, well quite frankly awful people in this country are about talking about grief. We don’t talk, we don’t listen, we don’t make time and we offer emotionless insensitive ‘silence filling’ reductive advice. I’ll give you a few examples of the sort of things people have said to me. – At least you got to say goodbye – If you’re still sad, why don’t you talk to a professional – You’re so strong, I don’t know how you do it – It was his time – Everything happens for a reason – They had a good life – Stop being upset, you’re stopping them from resting – It was years ago, move on I’m sure we’ve all unknowingly said or thought of some of these phrases before. Unsolicited advice doesn’t help. It may be well-intended but what peace does it give to someone who has lost their peace? We need to improve our grief literacy and with the pandemic still claiming upwards of 1,000 lives a week, the sooner this happens the better.
Grief and healing are not
Society sets these arbitrary timelines. My generation of 90s kids assumed that if you weren’t happily married with a degree by 25 years of age, you had failed. Similar to the Stages of Grief model presented to us by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, it just feels like ‘let’s leave them for a little while and when we get back, things will be just as they once were’. The death of a loved one changes everything. Grievers feel guilt at ‘moving on’ because they envisaged a shared future with the loved one who is no longer here. I want Grandad to watch me graduate from my PGCE, to see me begin my career and I could go on and on. I saw family members move on with their lives almost instantaneously but looking back, not everyone grieves or heals in the same way or at the same pace. This needs to be respected and understood. I still recall a deeply traumatic WhatsApp call where a friend watched his mother pass away in a COVID ward. He couldn’t be with her and sobbed endlessly all night. This was just a year ago and he isn’t the same person any more. ‘Normal’ as we once knew it has disappeared, it has gone. As much as I despise the phrase ‘new normal’, I would call the life after grief just that; ‘life after grief’. We all grieve and heal at our own pace.
Grief makes us more energy conscious
I avoid wasting my time on those who don’t match my energy. Our time on this earth is not infinite. It cannot be wasted on those who aren’t prepared to understand, learn or empathise. My Grandfather’s motto was ‘small circle, big heart’. He loved everyone but loved his family above everyone else. Home was his safe place, where he could be himself and enjoy watching his grandchildren grow up. He was enormously energy conscious. Loss teaches us a sense of perspective and that we are going to leave behind a legacy of some sort. Our energy should be invested in that legacy as when it’s all said and done, those who carry on our legacy will be the ones who reciprocated our energy during our time on earth.
Someone somewhere is thankful you are sharing
I often read that ‘oversharing is a trauma response’. Although I am getting a bit better, I speak to people all the time about loss. Grievers have their own tacit cues. We can sense loss in someone’s words, spot it in their eyes and through their non-verbal communication. Grief is its own language. Deep down I know full well conversations about grief remain in their infancy but by remembering those who have gone out loud, we commemorate their lives. Grievers long for safe spaces to share their loss and by this I don’t mean group counselling sessions. The COVID memorial wall is one of few examples in this country where we can collectively grieve. Things are changing as I have connected with bereavement charities led by young people including Let’s Talk About Loss, but the dialogue must continue. I just hope someone somewhere is thankful that I am sharing this with you. I do feel like the tide is changing with young people now beginning to hold deep conversations about societal taboos that generations before us unquestionably and uncritically accepted.
Grief has infinite stages. Sometimes I feel like when I write about grief it is full of contradictions but isn’t that grief in a nutshell? Each step of the journey needs to be carefully taken and gently processed. The next 12 months will inevitably lead to newer lessons and further understanding. Although we are a grief illiterate society, Rio Ferdinand reminds us ‘The sheer scale of cluelessness when it comes to dealing with loss. We’re all stumbling about in the dark; we all need help’. We must carry on learning and supporting each other. Grief is the endless cost of love but also our personal footprint of love. Never stop searching for your answers.
Brick by Brick It was a cold November weekend, The mid-autumn chill hit harder watching you depart, my friend, I often ask myself ‘why did I love so much?’ ‘Can I ever learn to trust?’ The hours of counselling and hearing unsolicited advice, Why can’t people empathise? How long will this last for? Will I feel the way I did before? I waited, the days became weeks, the weeks become months, then years, But whenever they mention your name, I still struggle to hold back the tears, Over fights over bowls of cereal, our time together seemed so criminally brief, Whereas some are cynically at ease, that’s their way of finding relief, I revel in the grief, it’s the door I keep ajar, The number of tears I shed, we could have filled thousands of reservoirs, Yet I watched your final moments but you live on through what we give to others, Brick by brick I just want to be okay, Brick by brick, I’m building to one day see you again. Your Puth. X
For additional support, the following links and sites offer some great advice and practical steps forward.
“…Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person. This is something that can happen in a conversation, but can also apply to critiques of entire civil rights organizations and movements.”
So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Tone policing, micro-aggressions & invalidating behaviours. A reflection.
Britain’s uncomfortable conversation about race hasn’t vanished. As much as the Sewell Report aimed to silence and obscure the true scale of racial disparity faced by millions in this country, we are at yet another point of reflection. In this piece, I want to reflect on Layla F. Saad’s incredible book, Me & White Supremacy, focusing on recent events around tone policing. Using this week’s incident involving MP for Coventry, Zarah Sultana and my own lived experience, let’s shed light on tone policing.
On July 14th, Labour MP Zarah Sultana gave a speech at the House of Commons after England Footballer, Tyrone Mings called out the Home Secretaries ‘pretend disgust’ at racism directed at England’s black players. Sultana passionately said that the PM and members of his cabinet have been, “stoking the fire” of racism. Also adding, they have given racism the “green light” in the UK. As the PM tries to condemn racism, the shadow of his own heinous racist rhetoric will always follow him. Zarah Sultana reminded the House of the PMs comments which included, describing Black people as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” The PM remains under scrutiny for failing to condemn the booing of England players for taking the knee ahead of matches. The Home Secretary herself branded the taking of the knee as “gesture politics” to only days later post on social media herself in an England shirt. This is all documented, factual and Zarah Sultana is a fierce believer in creating a more socially just world.
This is where it became uneasy for people of colour (POC). As Sultana relayed the concerns of many of us, Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins refuted her factual allegations. In a disgustingly condescending way, Atkins asked Sultana to “lower her tone.” She then went on to say, “I don’t genuinely think the honourable lady is accusing either the Prime Minister of this country or indeed the Home Secretary of racism. That would be a truly extraordinary allegation to make.” Here we have both racial gaslighting and tone policing or the tone argument. These are both invalidating behaviours that POC face every day, particularly women of colour. Atkins comments seeped with the notion of “know your place” and “are you sure that’s what happened?” Comments on tone have historically been used to silence and marginalise the voices of disadvantaged groups. Attacking the tone of the argument rather than its content, this is tone policing. Oh, the irony of telling some who has experienced racism to lower their tone about racism whilst protecting someone accused of racism. A deliberate ploy to divert attention and thus accountability. This isn’t the first time where a woman of colour has been tone policed in Parliament. Just last year Dr Rosen Allin-Khan was told to “watch her tone” by the now-disgraced former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. These comments are micro-aggressions, incredibly invalidating and begin to make you wonder, what has the status quo got against intelligent and eloquently spoken Muslim women calling out racism?
I’m still appalled. The House of Commons is hardly a cordial place of decorum and mutual respect. The sheer number of MPs who belch and shout over one another is simply astounding. Yet, when a Muslim woman wants to comment on racism, she is met with such patronising arrogance.
What is tone policing and why does it happen?
To help unpack this tone argument, I would like to refer to Layla F. Saad’s – Me & White Supremacy. Saad’s book is based on an Instagram challenge she launched in 2018 and it is a 28-day journey for people who have white privilege. The intention is to help guide those with this privilege to better understand this privilege and address their own unconscious racist thoughts, beliefs and biases. It is not an easy read but for those who really want to reflect and bridge the praxis of allyship, it is a must-read.
According to Layla F. Saad, tone policing is, “a tactic used by those who have privilege to silence those who don’t by focusing on the ‘tone’ of what is being said, rather than the actual content.”
In our emotionally illiterate society, any indication of emotion or emotional overtones in an argument will be deemed as ‘irrational’. As IQ continues to take precedence over EQ in the school curriculum, the ability to articulate your emotions into words cannot be understated. When a POC feels as though they have been unfairly treated, it triggers an emotional response but to solely state their response is emotional, implicitly we take the logic or rationality out of their point of view and experience. The fact that it is dismissed, ill-judged and yes, tone policed says more about the emotional intelligence of those doing the dismissive ill-judging and policing. I really like this table produced by the Global Reform network.
At its very core, tone policing is ad hominem. It is a divisionary tactic to gaslight and protect privilege rather than confront uncomfortable truths. Instead of considering the validity and logic of the argument, the tone in which this argument comes packaged is attacked. Instead of tackling the injustice, tone policing aims to dilute the message of this injustice. It invalidates it as a haphazard emotional outburst as opposed to a legitimate stance against unfair treatment. Tone policing is a strategic invalidating act that aims to steal the narrative away from the victim. This is done to regain control over a conversation by framing the speaker as overly emotional, hyper-sensitive or unreasonable. Once your tone is policed, your argument gets rendered as totally invalid regardless of how much evidence you are produce.
Saad later goes on to explain how a POC’s expression of anger is seen as dangerous whereas, for a white person, such expression is deemed as “righteous.” Saad also reminds us that the caricature of the “angry” POC, particularly of the “angry Black woman” is very common when it comes to tone policing. This notion that they cannot control their emotions and lack the restraint to present their views in a “cordial” way. The world has an issue with confident and assertive POC, and particularly women of colour might I add. As a good friend of mine, Flo reminded me in our podcast “If you call it confidence, self-assurance; or not being undermined but aggressive? I’d challenge that.”
So, you’re probably wondering, “what does tone policing sound like? Saad also asks persons of privilege to consider if they have said any of the following:
“I wish you were saying what you’re saying in a nicer way.”
“I can’t take in what you’re telling me about your lived experiences because you sound too angry.”
“Your tone is too aggressive.”
“The language you are using to talk about your lived experiences is making me feel ashamed.”
“They way you are talking about this issue is not productive.”
“If you would just calm down, then maybe I would listen to you.”
What does tone policingsoundlike?
From my own experience and reflecting on Layla F. Saad’s work, I have a list of examples of what tone policing sounds like. Although this is not an all-inclusive list, I aim to shed light on a handful of examples to help our readers understand my position.
I don’t like your tone.
I was working in a school where I perhaps didn’t agree with everything management wanted from their staff. So, one day I stuck my hand up in briefing and raised a concern over workload. Before I spoke, another member of staff who was White also relayed concerns about workload. When I finished my piece, a DHT said, “I don’t like your tone.” I had just been tone policed. I was calm, never raised my voice and simply wanted to relay my concerns in a forum that was open to everyone. Essentially, my concerns were invalidated and despite my fresh-faced NQT appearance, I did believe I had something important to say. When you are tone policed you begin to second guess if what you said was, a) appropriate, and b) if your tone was inappropriate. “Should I have said that?” “Oh no, this will get me in so much trouble” played in my head for weeks after this incident. Making someone question their version of events and then policing how they feel and how they should or should not express these feelings is gaslighting. Yet, before I realised what had happened, time had passed. This is why there is so much learning and un-learning still to do.
Calm down so we can discuss this like adults.
The notion of “calm down so we can discuss this later/or as adults” is particularly disturbing. Firstly, this is a wide assumption about your emotional state. Secondly, it implies your lack of calmness means you cannot have a grown-up conversation about your experience. I remember being racially abused by a member of staff at a leading theme park on a school day trip. This person followed me around the theme park, continued to ask me for my ID and even questioned if I was a “real” teacher. Much to frustration, my students saw this entire encounter and were visibly shocked. When I went to the trip leader about this incident, she repeatedly said, “it wasn’t racist, there are loads of Asian people here” and also asked me to “calm down so we can discuss like adults.” I was then asked to explain my version of events which lead to the comment, “you are not in the right frame of mind to tell us what really happened.” Years on, I still feel so aggrieved at this particular incident. Instead of challenging what had happened, the tone in which I used to explain what had happened faced more scrutiny than the racial profiling I had experienced. This taught me that everyone’s trauma, sadness, anger, fear or any other emotion is completely valid. We need to be asking people what happened, why they feel the way they do and then help support them. Focus on the content of the experience and not the tone in which it has been described to you.
“Okay, but the way you said it was…”
As mentioned before, being targeted because of your protected characteristics can lead to no end of anger or frustration. Perhaps what can double the blow of tone policing is the comment, “okay, but the way you said it was… aggressive/rude/abrupt.” There’s tone policing and then there’s policing the reaction to being tone policed. Let me add an example to explain. I was once racially abused by a student and of course, I was irate. I wanted the school to take action immediately and called for someone to re-educate this young person. When the student returned to school, no sanction was put in place. He was not punished at all. When I asked someone in management why this was the case, their reply was that my reaction to the racism was, in their own words, “over the top” and that I was “too emotional.” I was left dumbfounded. Instead of challenging the racism, they wanted to challenge my tone and emotional response to being racially abused? Ultimately, it invalidated my experience and later when this same student used homophobic language in school, management didn’t have a leg left to stand on. With such incidents, very real dialogue is necessary to support the victims of abuse and ensure a level of sanction meets the offence.
Why should we call it out?
Gendering of emotions
Tone policing usually functions from gendered emotions. Through the process of canalisation, certain stereotypes remain deeply embedded in our psyche. Policing someone’s tone creates a binary between emotional-rational and some commentators like Layla F. Saad would say, male-female and POC-white person. Gender and race/ethnicity intersect here once again. Tone policing women, particularly women of colour re-enforce these stereotypes and at a time where we battle the generational evils of toxic masculinity, I would suggest there’s so much learning and un-learning left to do, fellas.
Victoria Atkins had no intention of allowing a conversation about racism to gain pace in the Commons. These difficult conversations are taking place right across the world right now. However, those who empowered racism in the past are in no place to condemn racism in the present or future. You cannot condemn behaviours you support and ones you have never truly apologised for. Tone policing aims to keep the impact of the discussion at hand to a minimum. Those who benefit from the voyage have no intention of rocking the boat. It is easier to say, “watch your tone” rather than address your own fragility and the privileges you have so glad-handily benefitted from. This incessant urge to retain the monopoly of power and preserve privileges further silences historically disadvantaged groups. By failing to listen to these groups, we fuel the anger and alienation thus pushing these groups out of the democratic process and public discourse. Ultimately, these conversations you are so fearful of will take place whether you like it or not.
Silencing marginalised groups
When a conversation is tone policed, it further marginalises the groups who are already feeling the weight of disadvantage. These disadvantaged groups feel un-represented, silenced and marginalised by society. They want to be included but are forcefully excluded from arenas where they can bring change to their communities. This pent-up anger and frustration need an outlet but when a Muslim MP is tone policed, it silences an entire community’s very real grievances. Discussion on race is thus deemed taboo or off limits which pushes them further underground, into avenues that can’t be reached, where misinformation is rife and where education and guidance can’t be given. Tone policing gives the impression that the demands for basic human rights is “unreasonable” and prolongs racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Accepting, acknowledging and educating
Tone policing diverts attention away from the real issue at hand. When the main policer questions the tone of an argument, for the audience, the purpose of the argument gets lost or deliberately shut down. This prevents the audience to seek education, reflect on their privileges, uplift and support others and empathise with marginalised groups. Tone policing aims to create a sense of emotional distancing which is key in dehumanising marginalised groups and sustain the binary of us vs. them. Zarah Sultana was measured, clear and confident. She is a voice that deserves to be heard. Tone policing has meant she has been portrayed as “emotional” and just like many POC before and after her, this has meant an opportunity for learning and healing can be lost. We must do better. We all have so much learning and un-learning to do.
Tone policing centres on the binary of emotion vs. reason. The former is seen as being unable to coexist alongside the latter. When in reality, reason and emotion do and can work side-by-side in any given discussion. Tone policing is a form of gaslighting as it also creates a hierarchy between the policer’s feelings and the lived experience of those, they are policing. Also, through tone policing, if you don’t come across using normative ‘politeness’ and cordialness, your argument may be seen as less valid. Let’s make this clear, your argument, lived experiences and trauma are valid.
If you have read this blog and thought “this hasn’t happened to me” that is your privilege speaking. We need to hold conversations about racism and this starts with allowing POC to shed light on their lived experience without fear of any invalidation from those in positions of privilege. I suggest we all begin a period of reflection and get a hold of Layla F. Saad’s – Me and White Supremacy. By changing our outlook we can empower POCs to, as Saad puts it, have a “full expression of their humanity.”
Finally, I wish to send solidarity and support to Zarah Sultana, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan and any POC who has been tone policed. We stand by your message. Never dilute your message. Please carry on being your authentic, eloquent, brilliant selves. It’s clear that intelligent Muslim women are a threat to the established order, so much so, the tone becomes the centre of their argument rather than the validity of the argument you present which they have no answer to whatsoever. This past week has evoked a level of reflection on generations of micro-aggressions which implicitly tells POC to “know your place.” This is a broken system, it needs challenging. So, let’s challenge it, akhi.
“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds”
Healthy relationships, forming boundaries and venting withcare.
I rarely write such articles but I just felt this topic required time and space. I have always been keen for others to share their stories and their experiences and although I don’t necessarily agree with the term ‘trauma dumping’, it is something that needs to be unpacked. How can we create healthy relationships, form boundaries and effectively vent rather than dump to our support network?
What is trauma dumping?
This is a phrase many of us aren’t aware of and as all trauma deserve its own time and place, one ubiquitous definition is increasingly difficult to validate. But one day someone had arrived, told me about their trauma and then left. I was drowning in what they had told me. In hindsight, maybe I didn’t have the maturity, self-awareness or understanding to say, “Sorry, I am not in the right frame of mind to help but I can signpost you.” You see, we wear the weight of our experiences. The fact that concepts like, “tone policing”, “trauma dumping”, “love bombing” and “blamestorming” have become so commonly known, it refreshing to see. People have acknowledged their abuse, reframed it, and now want to provide others with a set of frameworks to understand that they are not alone.
Trauma dumping according to Activist Tori Tsui is described as the, “Centring of your emotions and needs before considering whether; A) it is appropriate to do so, and, B) whether the person has the capacity to receive it.”
In essence, trauma dumping is spilling an issue onto others without being empathetic to their emotional state. They are often one-way exchanges and can be enormously tiring for their recipients. The very notion of trauma dumping has made me ask myself several profound questions that include:
Am I being overbearing?
Is it necessarily the right thing to do to over-share my problems with strangers?
What does “no man is an island” really mean?
Maybe the person I am sharing with hasn’t got the answers and maybe they never will so maybe I need to look elsewhere?
I don’t believe anyone trauma dumps on purpose. We feel safe around some people and feel as though we can open up to them. People do genuinely want to help, advise, and signpost but not everyone has the emotional competence to do so. As conversations about mental health have gradually broken down a handful of societal taboos, it remains important to open up and share our feelings. With this comes great responsibility on the shoulders of those we share our pain, grievances, and vulnerabilities. Finding the right person, time and place often come from significant trial and error. Again, although I don’t agree with the phrase ‘trauma dumping’ itself, it is a thing and many of us are often left struggling to understand, support and care for those who we deeply care about. And this is not a reflection of us. It is purely because goodwill alone cannot compensate for our lack of capacity to carry the trauma of others.
Again, the message of this piece is we must be careful of who we talk to rather than not talk. From personal experience, this is what trauma dumping can look like.
Your advice is ignored or preferable unheard,
Keep everything they have told you which they weren’t supposed to tell you a secret,
Don’t share anything on social media that may hint at their situation,
You must always be available,
If you get a chance to speak, don’t expect a response.
Although this is not an exhaustive list, they are just a handful of ways trauma dumping works. It is often unconsciously done but can have an enormous emotional impact on the recipient. Especially we don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with that person or that scenario. It can be incredibly tough because as much as we want to help, being in a good headspace ourselves is the only way we can rationally signpost and support someone we really care about.
By no means am I suggesting that we should not seek help, look for support and open up about what is upsetting or hurting us. Conversations are healthy and from time to time, we all need an objective set of eyes and ears. However, we must be mindful of who we talk to, where we gain advice from and the emotional capacity of those we share with. When we trauma dump, we are expecting non-judgemental support which isn’t always so easily available.
Venting vs. Dumping
There is a difference and albeit a fine line between venting and dumping. We all need to let off steam and get things off our chest. However, when we talk about our trauma, we must carefully share it with those who have the capacity to help us work through it. This the why we need to distinguish between venting and dumping.
According to Psychologist Judith Orloff, the key differences between venting and dumping are as follows:
Sticks to one topic
Overwhelms you with many issues
Goes on and on
Shows accountability for their part in the issue
No accountability for their part in the issue
Open to solutions
Not open to solutions
Dr Orloff’s The Empath’s Survival Guide is such a compelling read.
As we see, there are key differences between what is healthy and toxic. The notion of openness and accountability are essential cues as we differentiate between the two. For me, reading the work of Dr Orloff was empowering in helping create healthy boundaries. Ultimately, dumping and venting differ as one seeks to sustain a dialogue about pain whereas the other aims to provide solutions to that hurt.
Why dumping should be avoided?
Hearing about the trauma of others can be triggering and often when we are in a bad place ourselves, we develop an innate urge to tell others how we feel. This is a natural response to our pain. Despite being a good friend and trying to help others, if we have yet to fully understand our own trauma, the trauma of others can be enormously triggering. We have to protect ourselves to protect others. Until the clouds of trauma have been lifted from our own lives, only then can we support those in need. Again, only when we are in the correct headspace ourselves can we help others.
We can overestimate and, in some cases, underestimate the emotional capacity of others. We should avoid trauma dumping because it is unhealthy. We should avoid it because it forcibly makes our listeners feel a sense of responsibility. Ultimately, we should avoid trauma dumping to protect ourselves and our close friendships.
If you have ever been trauma dumped on or really struggled to help someone you care about during a dark time, I hope this finds you. Many of us feel the full weight of guilt when we walk away with the empty feeling of helplessness. Our friend turned to us in pain and at that moment in time, we could not help them. Nevertheless, we have to learn from this experience. This list is not all-inclusive but I believe they can work in tandem to help others and ourselves too. We need rules for the dumping ground.
How to avoid dumping? How can we help others?
“Can I speak to you about something?”
For me, this is quite possibly the most powerful question we can ask. This is not only a pre-empt advance warning as such but it also aims to gauge the level of trust, confidence and empathy of others. This also shows a sense of mindfulness and respectful of your friend’s time and mental space. A simple, “Hey, I stressed out about x, y or z, can I talk to you about it?” can go a really long way. Before we offload, this conscious testing of the waters gives our friend or colleague a rough idea of what we want to share. We have no idea of the mental state of those we are sharing our problems with, let alone their capacity to understand and support us with our own issues. To protect them as well as ourselves, it is so important to give them a disclaimer. Knowing who we talk to and having the ability to trust their judgement, is how we can avoid dumping. Please be mindful of how much you share because as much as it hurts you, it can also be enormously triggering for the person you are sharing with too.
“I’m sorry, right now I am not in the right headspace.”
This is something I am learning to do every day. How can we possibly help someone when we are dealing with a magnitude of problems ourselves? Many of which we choose not to broadcast. Forming boundaries can seem very selfish but we need to help ourselves before we can help others. One person cannot be the panacea for the world’s problems. When we are on the receiving end of trauma dumping there is an overwhelming pressure for us to always find the right words, WhatsApp the right quote or say the right things. When we are dealing with our issues, it isn’t always possible to be there. Be honest and explain that you are not in a good state to listen or help today but when you are, you will be there to support, advise and signpost. Sometimes stepping away is often the most effective way of helping others. Something as simple as, “Hey, I’m not in the best place right now to talk about this.” We need to normalise these phrases to protect one another.
“I’m not sure if I can help but I do know…”
For empaths who by natural intuition take on the energies of those around them, this can be difficult. We must encourage those who are dumping or disproportionately venting to seek professional help and guidance. Their immediate support network, which may be full of amazing listeners, can become strained if a healthy equilibrium is not found. When we begin to associate a relationship with stress, anxiety, sadness, grief, anger and guilt, our judgement can become skewed. We may not know exactly how to support the ones we care about and that alone can be distressing. How many times have we walked away from someone and felt such insurmountable guilt in the thought of being unable to help them? As much as we should be encouraging conversations, signposting those we care about needs to be normalised. Allowing them to have guidance from professionally trained counsellors or support workers can alleviate the strain trauma can have on a relationship. Of course, at a time where CAMHS and mental health services are still chronically underfunded, this can become difficult. However, from personal experience the charities Sane and Mind have been brilliant. I will leave the links below.
People who are on the receiving end of trauma dumping can find it difficult to find the right way to comfort those in distress. I believe that we need to normalise all conversations around our trauma but with the right people. Confiding in the right people who are in the right headspace, who can signpost correctly and who have the capacity to comprehend our trauma is what we should be striving for. Finally, alongside normalising boundaries, we also need to normalise venting effectively in helping ourselves and others find a happy medium. We should be able to vent to our support systems that in turn enable us to have healthy long-lasting relationships.
I hope you can find your medium, akhi. Please remember to vent with care.
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
The Middle East, selective outrage, double standards, invalidating behaviours and anti-racism; a reflection.
I feel as though with the current situation in the Middle East we are having another watershed moment. A moment that is providing us all with learning opportunities that we can ill-afford to miss out on. The classroom really is the best place for these conversations.
I want to take you back to 2006. As I gazed out the classroom window and my Geography teacher, who we will call, ‘Mr. O’ told us to turn to page 89 in our atlases. I repeatedly tried to make out the name of the country in the Middle East. “P-P-P-Palestine,” I said, which was met with the comment “get out of my room.” As my peers looked on in shock, I didn’t know what I did wrong. For the next two days, I spent my time exclusively in the school’s internal exclusion room, completing several statements and yet, no one had told me what I had done wrong. It wasn’t explained to my parents either, but I felt pressured to apologise for saying the name of a country. All these years on, still no explanation provided, I am seeing a vicious cycle of aggression and, well, ‘cancellations’ for mentioning Palestine.
The gravity of words.
Understanding the gravity of our words is so vital. Words can give and take life in equal measure. This cycle of silence and denial of world events prevents meaningful solutions, sustained dialogue and we have seen how silence leads to complicity. Similarly, how invalidating behaviours can make others cast doubt on their own emotions and experiences. Over the past two weeks or so, we have heard about simmering tensions in the Israel-Palestine region. With this very contentious topic, a common theme is a cycle where the only victory is disagreement. There have been casualties and fatalities in both countries. However, highlighting disproportionate aggression, calling for universal human rights and stating that a peaceful resolution is what is needed right now. Schools are in a very precarious position. In fact, the safeguarding implications that silencing conversations could cause are so enormous.
Let’s also make this very clear, we must condemn anti-Semitism at every given opportunity. It should not and will not be tolerated in our schools. All forms of discrimination are appalling and there is no excuse for it. By no means should anyone pardon it? With every interaction comes a learning opportunity and I believe right now, the time has come for educators to be brave and embrace a learning opportunity. Again, the classroom really is the best place for these conversations.
Hearing of schools expelling Muslim students for saying “Free Palestine” does exactly what? Seeing a Headteacher publicly call the Palestinian flag a “call to arms” and a symbol of anti-Semitism. But, just like the relations in the Middle East, this isn’t a black and white binary. Of course, we have those who conflate messages with their own racist tendencies and must be fully aware of this. Something is wrong here. We are losing valuable learning opportunities. This is a broken system that needs to be challenged. But, have schools stopped to ask:
Why do our young people feel this way?
Are we seeing young people as autonomous and arbitrators of knowledge in their own right?
Do all young people feel as though they are respected and listened to?
Have we as educators have the training and skills to tackle global issues?
How do we draw a line between what is considered as free speech and what gets ‘cancelled’? Also, who draws this line?
Do all students feel as though they have a safe place to talk about what is concerning them?
How are we safeguarding/signposting our young people who are dealing with mass information and often misinformation, on what can be truly traumatic media and social media coverage?
Are we losing learning opportunities by silencing discussions on issues our young people feel so passionate about?
Is the curriculum an authentic reflection of world histories?
At what age do we stop wanting to be truth-seekers?
Just like the BLM movement last year, the current sensitive situation around the Middle East requires such intricate training, reflection and time and space to be carefully unpacked. Many of our students feel as though it is not only their human right but also their right as a British citizen to protest and hold conversations that matter to them. Words have gravity and we wear the weight of what we see and hear. Again, I believe this could be such a watershed moment in education for us all.
Apolitical free speech: the oxymoron.
I once queried a student for wearing a wristband with the Ukrainian colours at the height of the 2014 crisis in Crimea. This intelligent young man spoke to me in-depth about what was happening in Crimea. He repeatedly told me that his stance was humanitarian but was deemed a marginal militant one. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t give young people the credit they deserve. Maybe instead of seeing them as empty shells that we must fill as educators with our subject knowledge, maybe young people are autonomously seeing the world around them and forming their own opinions. Again, any humanitarian issues are innately, and inherently political as most humanitarian crises are the result of political decisions.
As educators, we tow a fine line but do we begin shutting down conversations because they don’t neatly fit the unchallenged normative binaries that we are so accustomed to? Saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean all lives don’t matter. You would have thought by now, after much reflection, we would be at a stage where we could consider rather than dismiss the grievances of others. Let’s say, a child in our class does say, “Free Palestine”, are we right to hand out a punitive punishment and subsequently dismiss them? A school should be a place for education and direction. Of course, we must stamp out racism, yet alongside this must come a robust system to educate. We must ask: Are educators, within their respected contexts trained well enough to deal with the plethora of global issues that permeate into their classroom? Again, schools up and down the country are having this very difficult conversation. Do we police other forms of discrimination (sexism, Islamophobia, etc) with the same iron fist the way we silence conversations about Palestine? Are we alienating and invalidating the young people when they wish to hold a conversation that matters to them and their community? Again, the classroom really is the best place for these conversations.
As always, we have some solutions that are worth reflecting on. Albeit not an exhaustive list, let’s consider proactive steps forwards.
Training – seeking andreflecting
The need for high-quality anti-racism training is of paramount importance. I firmly believe all the shutting down and shouting down of conversations relating to the Middle East is because there is a lack of awareness and training. Perhaps also, most glaringly too, the unwillingness of School Leaders and those working in education to reflect and undertake this training. Our knee-jerk reaction when we hear something that doesn’t quite fit our narrative is to either go on the defensive or shut down the conversation. In doing so, do we close avenues for reflection to educate and even re-educate ourselves and our students? When a student says, “Free Palestine” are we willing to ask why they feel as though Palestine needs to be free? Do we consider the safeguarding regulations around where they have got their information from? Are we signposting them? Shying away and claiming silence does exactly what? Young people will carry on talking about what hurts them regardless of how much we police them. Again, the classroom really is the best place for these conversations. It is vital that we educate ourselves, continue the dialogue and reflect on our global issues. Our classrooms are not bubbles (no pun intended in our COVID times), as they are a miniature version of society and the best place for us to support our young people. Training and self-reflection are of paramount importance. I am certain any educator with a vested interest in providing equitable life chances for all will be happy to signpost you.
Safe spaces – making them exist
Is the classroom a safe space for all young people? We all like to think that our students can approach us with a concern and that we can signpost them. The terrifyingly graphic images of children being killed, buildings and places of worship being destroyed. This secondary trauma caused by such imagery is overwhelming. Our young people are constantly bombarded with media, so much so that it becomes impossible for them to avoid it. However, is there a safe and neutral place for them to discuss what they have seen? Is there a willingness amongst educators to hold these very difficult conversations? After hearing an audio on social media where a teacher told a student that he was categorically wrong for saying people were being killed in Palestine, shockingly this teacher began to guilt-trip the child. Did this teacher value or even consider the opinion of this child? Are schools providing a safe space for education and re-education? How can anyone think the child, and let’s make this clear, he was a child, will feel after being punished for making a comment? When did we begin to render children voiceless? When did we begin to lose our compassion? We serve the communities in which our schools are embedded in this we should be condemning and praising in equal measure.
Safe spaces; if they don’t exist, make them exist. Be that child’s safe space. Educate them in that safe space. If not your classroom, where else is truly safe for them?
Educate – liberate, don’t police and pacify
With training and safe spaces, educating our young people on the facts is imperative. We are utterly bombarded by information and misinformation, news and fake news, truth and lies. These are very uncomfortable conversations. This is unchartered terrain. At a time where various PSHE frameworks mention notions of “victim narratives”, teaching factually correct as opposed to ideologically vested versions of the truth is key. Every micro-interaction, every disruption to a lesson, every raised hand in class, all of it! All of these are incredible opportunities to learn from one another. I have had student racially abuse me but returning with an aggressive tone or seeking disproportionate sanctions leads to what, exactly? An opportunity to speak to the young person who has said something awful, trying to understand where these views come from and thus signposting them, this is how we proceed forwards. This is not easy and for example, having a child shout, “Free Palestine” can put us on the back foot. Yet, unless we address it with sensitivity, such conversations leave the vicinity of the classroom. They become detached from the safe space we have developed which perpetuates further silence. Silence is not the answer. As educators, we should be immersing ourselves in current affairs as they permeate into our classroom. We can thus have the pedagogical toolkit ready and to hand to tackle issues that affect our learners.
The rise of racism in any forms is horrific and must be challenged and questioned. We must move away from neat binaries which are both divisive and delegitimise the real grievances others are feeling. Seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Middle East requires us to be aware of the atrocities of both opposing sides. To consider humanity and loss in equal measure. Although there is no straightforward solution to this situation, we must remember that once upon a time the three religions that descend from the same Prophet (Abraham) have more in common than we are allowed to believe.
I urge educators to start another period of reflection. Punitive sanctions, shouting down conversations and invalidating behaviours is not the way forwards. Not forgetting that both silence and apathy are political stances also. We have a professional responsibility and duty to make all young people feel valued and respected. But refusing to do so, this pushes, often our most vulnerable young people into avenues and forums that are not protected by statutory safeguarding the way educational establishments are. Please think about it. The classroom really is the best place to hold these conversations.
Insha’Allah this reaches you. Please pardon my mistakes. Forever making Dua for world peace. Ameen.
Supporting Muslim staff and students during Ramadan.
Ramadan begins sometime in mid-April. Yet, as discussions continue about the exact date and which calendar we follow, little to no literature exists on how we can support Muslim teachers and students in schools. The global pandemic has seen seismic shifts in our social interactions and Ramadan this year will be like no other. During this article, the aim is to use lived experience to shed light on the festival of Ramadan. I also wish to provide some practical steps to support those who are participating in the annual fasting tradition. This is a first Ramadan in two years without COVID restrictions. Yet, a conversation where we can bridge a disconnect, that’s what’s the Imam ordered.
What is Ramadan?
One thing that needs to be made abundantly clear; Muslims are not a homogenous group. Therefore, applying a one-size-fits-all definition to Ramadan is problematic. There are many different schools of thought in Islam. All of which deserve time, respect, and their own place to be unpacked. Sensitivity is of paramount importance and even as a Muslim myself, I must be aware of this. My sincerest apologies if I make any mistakes in this article. All faults are my own and my own only as Islam is perfect. For the purpose of this piece, and to ensure sensitivity, I will be sourcing information and citing the Islamic charity Muslim Hands.
As the very core, Muslims across the globe practice the five pillars of Islam. These five pillars include:
Shahadah – the reciting and profession of the Islamic faith.
Salah – five daily prayers and performing ritual cleansing or wudu.
Zakat – giving to charity based on one’s wealth to help those less fortunate. Donations during Ramadan often hold much greater reward for the donor.
Sawm – the process of fasting during the month of Ramadan. There are exceptions as to who can take part in fasting, but it is expected if you are of good health and sound mind.
Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca, which every able-bodied Muslim must do at least once in their lifetime.
Sawn, which is fasting during the month of Ramadan is defined as, “a month of fasting and abstaining from things considered to be impure for the mind and body. Those partaking in Ramadan abstain from food, drink and impure thoughts between the hours of sunrise (Fajr) and sunset, allowing them instead to focus on prayer and connecting with Allah (SWT).”
The act of fasting allows the individual to understand the pain and suffering of millions around the world who live their lives in poverty and famine, leaving the participant feeling more grounded and grateful for all that Allah (SWT) has given them. At the close of the month, Zakat donations during Ramadan are made and then Eid al-Fitr is celebrated with loved ones. Eid is a great time of feasting and celebration for Muslims, with gifts exchanged between loved ones.
(Muslim Hands, 2020)
When is Ramadan? At the moment, there is consensus that April 1st or 2nd will mark the beginning of Ramadan. This may vary from school of thought to school of thought but the early April sounds, well, halal!
A reflection: Personally, Ramadan is an opportunity to reflect and seek forgiveness from Allah (SWT). It is a chance to become closer to the message of Islam and develop greater self-awareness of the plight of others around the world. Whether this is in Yemen, Kashmir, Palestine, Sudan, Nigeria or wherever suppression exists, Ramadan, rather beautifully puts life into perspective. As a child and most British Pakistani Muslim people will tell you, there is no greater routine than the one we are blessed with during Ramadan. From the early starts and decisions on how to start the fast (Sehri), to seeing the incredible spread of foods for when your fast opens (Iftari), to Taraweeh prayers where you would meet and greet neighbours and members of the community who dress in the fanciest of garments, others who struggle after some over-indulgence at Iftari time! My siblings and I would joke about how Eid is the “only socially acceptable day to hug others.” The smells and aroma coming from the kitchen and euphoria and love coming from the community. Ramadan is a beautiful time of year. Words cannot do it any justice. Raising awareness is key and as a Muslims, we can open doors and be hospitable in holding these conversations.
Unconscious biases and uncomfortable truths
Although Ramadan does mean different things to different people and evokes differing feelings for different people, it is a very special month for Muslims. It is a wide consensus that every fit, able-bodied adolescent completes fasting during the month of Ramadan. It is a time of reflection and reconnection. This really is more than just avoiding food and drink. Yet, fasting is not easy. Working in a fast-paced environment, where you are in a continuous need to replenish your energy levels, it can be challenging. For our students also, many of whom have the exam season, SATs or simply a busy school day running side-by-side with Ramadan, it can be a challenge. From personal experience, I have struggled with fatigue, light-headedness and dehydration whilst teaching during Ramadan. As a student, doing cross-country in the 25 degrees Cambridgeshire sunshine, it was awful. At a time where we are beginning to hold meaningful conversations about anti-racism, inclusion, diversity, and equality, how can we support our Muslim colleagues and students during Ramadan?
Before we begin, there some common misinterpretations we do need to challenge. These are a collection of comments many Muslims teachers and students have heard and do need to be carefully and sensitively unpicked. Unconscious biases exist in almost every micro-interaction, but we challenge these, in collaboration. I would only like to focus on the two because the overtones of this piece are about proactive steps forwards.
Not even water?
I was sat in a staffroom and an overly eager member of staff offered me a coffee during Ramadan. I politely replied, “No, thank you. I am fasting.” Her reply, “Tea?” Albeit, very funny to begin with, I did explain that fasting does prohibit the consumption or food and water between sunrise and sunset. This member of staff repeatedly said, “What? Not even water?” Many Muslims will admire the curiosity, naivety and yes, they will pardon unconscious biases because that is what Islam teaches; to love all. However, we must be wary that some do find it unnerving and tiring to repeatedly correct others and almost justify their belief. Context is of great importance here. If you know that member of staff or that student well, then you can pitch questions and learn from them. We must be careful and not making our Muslim colleagues or students the epicentres of knowledge. We are all still learning, and religiosity, practice and belief can vastly vary from one person to another. Again, context is key. Getting to know your staff and students, striking rapports with them can break the ice before sensitive conversations take place.
Is it healthy?
My friend was repeatedly asked by his Head if fasting during Ramadan was healthy.This was very uncomfortable and when his Head asked him not to participate in Ramadan, he was visibly upset. Does fasting impact on your performance at work? What if he didn’t disclose that he was fasting, would that have been better or worse? Muslims have been fasting since the 7th Century and even today, health fads like intermitted fasting have their own intellectual veneer. Ramadan isn’t about food, we can cope with our brie and grape sandwiches! From a wellbeing point of view, you can where this comment is coming from but to then ask this member of staff and later tell parents that fasting could be a “distraction”, this simply seeps with insensitivity and Islamophobia. Fasting allows Muslims to reflect, cleanse their mind, body, and soul. Again, your context is key. Supporting your students and staff during Ramadan requires some soul searching. As an able-bodied adult like my friend, his personal beliefs and practices do should not be so frivolously challenged. There is still so much work to do hence when we are having this conversation.
How can we support Muslim staff and students?
These are not all-encompassing or exhaustive ways we can support Muslim students and staff. However, this begins a conversation that is necessary as we approach Ramadan.
As challenging and as uncomfortable as it may be, I believe if we want a society that is inclusive and accepting, people need to feel comfortable enough to disclose that they are participating in Ramadan. In the times we live in, even telling people that you are a Muslim can be difficult. I cannot tell you the number of times I have ignored the religion question or refused to state my religion on an application form. Sometimes we have loaded assumptions about what others think about us which can mar our interactions with them. However, as the movement towards greater appreciation and celebration of diversity slowly trickles into society, the responsibility is on us to disclose our religious practices that can potentially make some elements of our role more challenging. Once we have had this conversation, the onus then becomes on our employers to support us. Waiting around for people to notice or a token mention in a whole staff email, it doesn’t cut the jalebis! Often, acknowledgement is the precursor to understanding and acceptance.
Asking rather than assuming
When a festival like Ramadan comes along, there are common misconceptions, as well as scope for questions and curiosity. From personal experience, it can be both a blessing and a burden to be asked about your beliefs and constantly allow others to project their subjective views onto your faith. Most Muslims will be open, willing to take questions and rather you ask than make a misleading assumption. However, this needs to be done sensitively. Curiosity is admired, welcomed and vital. Yet, when Muslim staff are asked to lead an assembly on Ramadan or students are given a day off to celebrate Eid, this isn’t inclusion. Why ignore their faith until it enables you to tick a inclusivity box? Why have an assembly about Ramadan when, for example, Islamophobia remains unchallenged across your institution? Yes, inviting conversations about religious festivals and customs is important but your experts are not always your students and staff. Assuming they are spokespeople on all matters Islam, this tendency is the reason why there is so much division. We are at the mercy of a technological revolution. Information is available at an instant. There is no excuse not to be informed and the time you take out to develop an understanding of others, it will be reciprocated someday. Asking rather than assuming is a key way to support Muslim students and staff during Ramadan.
Making necessary adjustments
When you are fasting, the day naturally feels longer, and your energy levels are naturally lower. As inclusive hubs, schools must work collectively with their staff and students to create an ethos that empowers and gives a voice to everyone. During Ramadan, I have completed duties in the school canteen, been offered food and drink, asked to cover lessons in different parts of the school building and even compete in a sports day with my form class. If we are looking at teacher wellbeing and using the praxis of physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, what adjustments were made for me during Ramadan? I have a colleague who was asked to support practical Food Technology lessons during Ramadan and my nephew who is in sixth form has told me of the frustrations that his school prayer room being next to the loud Music room. Schools can make adjustments, not just during Ramadan but in how they welcome adults and young people from all walks of life. The number of schools I have visited that don’t even have adequate access for wheelchairs, it fills you with despair. We can make those adjustments, offer to do a duty for someone, avoid offering them food or drink and really change our perceptions and have meaningful interactions with others. This is a journey and one that can take together. The small, rather banal and nuanced adjustments we can make really can make a massive difference.
As a member of staff, you may begin to see Muslim teachers begin to wear headscarves or seek a place to pray. Before Ramadan, they may not have had the consciousness or courage to express an important element of their faith. This is often met with suspicion and apprehension but we got to understand the significance and weight of Ramadan. It’s an exceptionally special time to become closer to your faith. Allowing staff to pray, giving them a key to lock their door whilst they pray, acknowledging their needs. As a good friend told me “isn’t about moving mountains, it’s about raising consciousness.”
Also, we need to also accept that some students and staff may not observe fasting during Ramadan. Again, this needs to be addressed sensitively too. Some Muslim teachers may find it difficult to catch up with the latest teaching and learning fad or Tes article. This is an opportunity to become closer to our Lord. Society needs to understand this and we need to embrace this. Time and space really is everything. Schools need to reflect on inclusivity, empower their staff and make provisions available.
The holy festival of Ramadan dawns upon us again and provides us all with plenty of food for thought. If anything, I hope this article gives you an honest opportunity to reflect any for many, it will resonate very closely. Tackling and addressing unconscious biases takes learning and also unlearning, healing and also collaborating. Our Muslim colleagues and students need for us to be informed and inclusive. If you can, offer to do that duty, be curious but sensitive, seek to understand rather than pass judgement. We can all learn from one another. We all need to be part of this conversation. Everyone from our students, to TAs, to HR. Inclusive practices are not peripheral entities, they are a cultural change based upon mutual respect and understanding.
To everyone reading, Ramadan Kareem (may Ramadan be generous to you). Insha’Allah. Ameen. Again, my sincerest apologies for any mistakes I have made during the course of this writing. All mistakes are my own. I don’t know everything but I will contribute from my own experience and for some, that’s the only exposure they will have.
Thank you for reading.
And yes, not even water.
Happy Birthday, Dad. Ramadan has never felt the same since you left us. You are loved and missed. X
Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.
Racial Gaslighting, micro-aggressions, invalidating behaviours and anti-racism.
A good friend asked me to join her anti-racism session this week. After speaking to an incredibly intelligent, curious and enthusiastic group of trainee teachers, my personal reflections took a new turn. So much fantastic work is being done to improve inclusivity, diversify curriculums and hold conversations that truly matter. However, the historical biases and status quos we face remain as fragile and as resistant as ever. The work may never stop and sometimes we must accept the beneficiaries of our hard work won’t always be us and that is okay. We must take painful strides, collaboratively.
While talking about my lived experiences of racism, which do not elevate to a position of omniscience, the trauma and anxiety remain very much alive. My earliest experience of racism was at age four, where another child openly said, “I don’t like playing with P****.” As I have grown older, racism has not vanished, albeit no longer so overt. It remains a very real part of my existence, my daily experiences, my social media interactions and my sense of self. Racism does exist and has continued to evolve and manifest itself into even the most nuanced micro-interactions we have. Very often this is implicit, unconscious and we are unaware of the significance of our words and even our silence has on those who have faced generations of historical oppression. The purpose of this article is to educate through my own lived experiences of racial gaslighting. In any conversation about social change, we need concrete steps to help us move forwards.
What is racialgaslighting?
People across the world are coming together to condemn racism. National and global events often trigger conversations about the experiences of BAME people. Yet, on the rare occasion where someone who has experienced a micro-aggression or a racist comment to speaks up, it isn’t uncommon for their version of events to be cast into doubt and their experiences to be invalidated. Very real grievances are thrown out and delegitimised through what we would consider as rather banal everyday comments, many of which we will consider later. But what is racial gaslighting?
According to Professor Angelique M. Davis and Dr Rose Ernst, in their award-winning article, Racial Gaslighting (2016), define the phenomena as: “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist. By design, the survival, existence, resilience, and/or success of People of Color is an act of resistence on both macro and micro levels that results in racial gaslighting.”
Racial gaslighting is about casting doubt on the racist experiences faced by others. It is about denying a version of reality belonging to the victim and pursuing the narrative that best ‘fits’ an agenda where no action is pursued against the perpetrator. So, those who must take responsibility don’t have to shift their world views. Ultimately, implicitly or not, racial gaslighting helps maintain a very fragile monopoly of power. This version of gaslighting is rarely individualised, although it can be, but it tends to be systemic and institutional. By dismissing and thus diminishing the experiences of others, this gaslighting largely prevents very legitimate grievances being challenged and addressed. We will be looking at several examples of this.
Although this is not an exhaustive list, these are five comments I have heard countless times. These comments have been accompanied by a lack of action and thus accountability for the perpetrator. I believe many BAME people will be reading this blog and nod along in agreement. The hope is we can change the way our experiences will be dealt with in the future.
“You’re being too sensitive.”
This comment has followed almost like a shadow my entire life. Questioning and scrutinising someone’s emotional intelligence is gaslighting. The fact that I have been racially abused and can’t be feel hurt by it? Racism is incredibly traumatic and there is one experience I will never forget. As a Teacher, a rather innocuous trip to Alton Towers lead to me being racially profiled by the theme park staff. I was racially abused, accused of being “shifty” and told I don’t “look like a teacher.” This happened in front of my students and I was absolutely in tears and horrified. Immediately I was pulled over by the organiser of this trip and told, “you’re being too sensitive” and that may be I misheard what was said to me. This comment of being “too sensitive” is like saying to someone that their battle isn’t worthy. It is still very upsetting and the fact I was questioned to the point of questioning my version of reality, it meant I was “wrong” for being hurt by racism. How does this work? The psychology of it is frightening. How does one go from being a victim for the perpetrator to have excuses being made for them by us? The experience of racism is very unpleasant and evokes such anger and pain. Why am I being accused of being “too sensitive” when clearly someone has upset me on a very personal level? Why would anyone feel the need to cast into doubt the emotional compass of others when they have just gone through a very traumatic ordeal?
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
In terms of questioning one’s reality, this comment is incredibly dangerous and very insensitive. On countless occasions this what I have witnessed and experienced has been scrutinised to the point where I begin to question the reality of it. A few years back I was a TA in a very challenging school. My fellow Muslim colleagues continued to cite racism and even violence from students towards them. The situation was at almost breaking point where several of us refused to work in classes where the levels of hostility were so frightening. No one should feel unsafe or at risk at work. After witnessing a fellow TA being physically pushed to the floor and then being racially abused, I was asked to complete a statement. Within minutes of penning my final lines and handing it back, I was hauled into a meeting where several of us sat there having completed almost identical statements. The very first words were heard were “are you sure that’s what happened?” Beyond this came several really loaded and insidious questions, detailing the time, the colour of chairs and even if we had a personal relationship with the TA who was assaulted and racially abused. Leaving that meeting, I knew immediately nothing would come of it and days later, a similar incident happened again. We need to accept that racism does exist and that the victim gains nothing from falsifying claims of its existence. We are sure that’s what happened, now stop questioning us and help us find a way forwards.
“It’s not a big deal.”
The desensitisation and emotional distancing with this comment is like no other. To someone who has never experienced racism, it might not be a “big deal.” However, for those who face the realities of racism, systemic, institutional or anything in between, it is a big deal. Racism is at the heart of structural inequalities and generation of social exclusion and disadvantage. It is outrageous that someone who has never experienced racism to tell those who have, “it is not a big deal.” This alienates the victim of abuse, telling them that how they feel is invalid and further exacerbates this us vs them feeling. One incident that still leaves me so perplexed is being asked to lead a staff training event on cultural sensitivity, to the next hearing a colleague tell a BAME child “it’s not a big deal” after she was racially abused. The ability to dictate, heat and freeze what matters is a pillar of privilege and supremacy within itself. Racism is a big deal. Belittling others and their pain does not elevate your own message or status. If anything, it is more divisive. Giving others the autonomy and time and space to unpack how they feel should take precedence over forcefully dictating what should and should not be a “big deal.”
“I’m not being funny, but (insert racist comment of choice)”
Gaslighting blurs the boundaries between triviality and reality. So often, racist comments are pre-empted with “I’m not being funny but…” But, what? Why is there a need to even make this comment? It isn’t friendly banter, nor should it be camouflaged as such. This comment is used so commonly before people seek to say something they perceive as “edgy.” From my own experience, I once heard a Senior Leader in a school say, “I’m not being funny, but the Muslims are out of control.” He made no reservations and in fact, looked in my direction as he made this comment. It wasn’t at all funny and rather unapologetically, I left the room. Simply because you did not mean to cause offence doesn’t mean you haven’t. This trivial comment made by someone in a position of authority was normalised because it was not challenged. We must challenge these invalidating behaviours. I’m not being funny but gaslighting is out of control.
“They didn’t mean it that way.”
If we are talking about excusing racism or any form of discrimination, this is the go-to comment. How can you not mean it that way? Racism is racism. On the occasions this phrase has been used as “justification” for racism, the victim is left voiceless. The clearest and obvious example of this was when a friend reported their colleague for making racist remarks towards BAME students on sports day. The member of staff who was allegedly racist was never questioned and several colleagues backed him up by saying, “that how he is” and “they didn’t mean it like that.” When this happens, you begin to allow validation for racism to exist. Instead of challenging the individual, even the accuser begins to begins to cast doubt on events. They may begin to wonder if the perpetrator has had the appropriate training or perhaps there is a generational or regional gap hence their use of certain words. This is wrong. If it is indeed, “that how they are” then we must be challenging the structures that have allowed this to persist. Instead of saying “they didn’t mean it that way”, a conversation should be geared towards, “what was wrong about what they said and how can we change it?” The notion of “they didn’t mean it that way” is not an excuse for any form of discrimination. Creating justification when there isn’t any place for justification, even guilt-tripping them into acceptance of what is wrong, this is gaslighting.
I can imagine many of us are clenched up right now, possibly even at the thought we may have used the rhetoric of racial gaslighting, albeit unintentionally. You see, what we don’t see, we don’t police. But we are all on a journey to improve our understanding of one another and inevitably, we will leave behind those who are not committed to diversity and inclusion. Yet, what can we do to challenge unconscious biases, as clearly we have an issue but without the tools to proactively tackle the problem, the pain is prolonged. There is no magic wand approach, no real reading list as such. This will take reflection and time. And although we might not be the beneficiaries of the painful strides that have been made, our work will still speak for us.
Acceptance is key
When a racist incident happens, solid foundations and expectations are melted into thin air. It creates a real unease and stir. To tackle the issue, we cannot dismiss what has happened. We need to avoid value-laden assumptions and aim to re-educate perpetrators and support victims. Accepting that racism exists and that it is not okay, this is the foundation of trying to support our BAME colleagues, students and members of the community. Acceptance comes through personal reflection and also listening to the experiences of others. Lived experience is so impactful and gaining an insight into the lives of others will only enrich us in our future interactions. I am a big advocate of non-tokenistic collaboration where, for example, BAME educators are given time and space to talk about matters that impact on them. Where they control the narrative and self-regulate conversations as well as share their expertise. Everyone has a story and wants to be heard. Providing others with authentic opportunities to express their experiences, this is how we bridge the disconnect between making assumptions and developing greater awareness.
Stop allowing broken systems to persist.
Broken systems where discrimination is “justified” and excused, they cannot be allowed to persist. Silence and denial are incredible enablers. They must be challenged. Particularly in educational settings. If we relate this to safeguarding or wellbeing, no child or member of staff should be uncomfortable in sharing their experiences or even reporting incidents. We must continue challenging, reflecting and working towards providing everyone with a safe place to express their very real grievances. Systems and people who are broken, unwilling to be part of conversations about diversity and inclusion, we have to leave them and focus on those who are willing to engage with us and our truth.
Our analysis of this notion of racial gaslighting has taken many turns. At the very core, if we are in a position where people want to listen, we must continue holding conversations that matter. Racism still exists in society and whether this is overt or not, challenging the foundations that enable it to prosper begins with us, our micro-interaction and challenging unconscious biases. Ultimately, we need to give people time and space to unpack their experiences and ultimately, this will enrich us all. We should not question the emotional competence or sanity of our BAME colleagues, students or neighbours. As clearly they feel as injustice. Challenge the injustice. We need to continue challenging these broken systems.
Finally, I have also recently heard about the tragic case of Mohamud Hassan who was suffered fatal injuries at the hands of police officers in Cardiff. His family deserve answers and justice. Please see the link at the end of this blog – read, donate and share widely. This reiterates the fact that Black Lives Matter.
Thank you for reading,
Afua Hirsch – Brit(ish) On Race, Identity and Belonging
Angelique Davis & Ernt Rose ‘Racial Gatekeeping’, Politics, Groups, and Identities, 7:4, 761-774
This past Monday started like no other. I was sat at my PC, ready to plan for lessons and get ready for another week of remote teaching. Within minutes of Tweeting about Piers Morgan jumping ship during the pandemic and adding to the already extraordinary list of high profile teacher bashers, I found myself in the eye of a storm. Mr Morgan had quote Tweeted me, seemingly under the veneer of social justice leading to a public pile-on. The racism, Islamophobia and sheer abusive dismissiveness of the profession I love made me realise how deep the disconnect is between this country and its educators. This needs to be addressed, misconceptions need challenging and a consensus needs to be reached about the reality and the rhetoric of life at the chalkface. This is my open letter to the public.
At 8pm on January 4th, the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown. As we had spent the day preparing for student returns and their Christmas break living in uncertainty like the rest of us, schools are closed. Well, kind of closed because closed has the connotations that all that is teaching and all that is learning ceases to exist as school gates are firmly padlocked and ginormous academies replicate apocalyptic film set. Teaching and learning moved online, new pedagogies had to be developed and again, with no consultation or real warning, School Leaders were left feeling like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. The public backlash is not against the government who are responsible for Britain having the highest death toll in Europe or even the private backers of the “world-beating” track and trace system. Our nation’s educators have been the enemy of the public for some time now, with mass misconceptions, appalling commentary, nebulous and vicious rumours, all cemented under the guise of “how hard can it be?” or “lazy teachers love a good moan” and “everyone else is getting on with it, why can’t you?” This needs challenging, addressing and again, a sense of unity is required.
My personal position of platform is something I am learning about every day. Many people feel like it is not their place to speak about real life issues. However, how can I turn my back on a profession that has gave me so much as a child and has empowered me so much as an adult? I am not a spokesperson for all educators but with platform comes privilege. It’s time to hold a conversation that matters. This bombastic orgy of teacher bashing needs to be dissected and whilst this blog is not an all-exhaustive piece, I hope it does justice for the incredible educators out there who are also demoralised, hurt, struggling but still trying their best during these truly awful times.
Teaching is like any other job.
It really isn’t. To become a teacher it takes tremendous sacrifice, hard work and dedication. We spend years in academia, completing exams, going through the natural trajectory of schooling and higher and further education. If teaching was easy then I would challenge anyone to get an undergraduate degree, complete a post-graduate qualification as they rush through two contrasting placements, and then actually do the job. If it was “easy” why do we have a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. The complexity of a classroom, the thousands of micro-decisions we have to make every day, the skill, social and emotional competence, resilience, commitment and I could go on and on. A teacher is a special person and our role is never simply like a 9-5. It is all-encompassing and challenging career choice we make. It is also the greatest privilege in the world – to be educating the next generation and providing them with the knowledge and skills to be part of our society. The fact that we have switched learning online, it has thrown a major curveball at us as educators but we are adapting, it will take time but we are experts at responding to last minute changes. As remote learning takes centre stage, I challenge any member of the public to simultaneously take a register, share a split-screen, read out instructions, shift between multiple tabs, whilst trying your best to remain calm when you have 30 doe-eyed cherubs waiting to be taught! We have the threat of Ofsted inspections and an Education Secretary who continues to stoop to new levels of incompetence at the helm too. Even schools are not promoting “Remote Learning Leads.” Nothing compares to the pressure we face. No teacher training course or provider could train us for a pandemic! Again, if it was easy, why don’t you sign up or volunteer for the day?
You had 10 months to prepare for this.
This was a comment I read several times on Monday. Did we have 10 months? Moving teaching online changes how we operate, it alters our routines and it does have a massive impact on our planning, workload and our personal lives? Most people in education has little to no time to prepare for this national lockdown. The logistics of moving learning online is not simply something we can pluck out of thin air like a “world-beating” catchphrase. We had the best part of morning and our disrupted Christmas holidays to get our heads around the changes that were going to be put in place. One minute Chris Whitty is telling us schools are safe, the next Priti Patel informs us education staff are at a greater risk. In December, teachers’ were supposedly being asked to partake in mass testing in schools and by January 5th, schools has closed in their full capacity. The government had ten months to find a solution to this pandemic but where is the public outcry? Yet, the press and public are keen to attack Mrs Jones in the Maths Department at any given opportunity. Truth is, with all the U-turns and constant stop-start nature of schools because of awful policy making, we had 10 months to switch to blended learning, face masks in class rooms, year group rotas and an equitable alternative to exams. 10 months have come and gone but the complex nature of our roles means teaching needs to be adapted, refined and even how we assess engagement and progress has been thrown into uncertainty with remote learning. No one can prepare you for sitting at a computer all day. With all due respect to office jobs, remote teaching throws up a new challenge everyday. Whether this is with technology, a student absence or anything else. Yes, we’ve had 10 months but teaching never stands still and we continue to adapt and seek best practice as the excellent reflective practitioners we are. This isn’t easy. It really is surreal. How much our students feel? We have had 10 months of hell, U-turns, increasing workload and since September, we have lived with the constant fear of contracting COVID and putting our own loved ones at risk.
Kids are missing out on an education
This is pretty much Mr Morgan had to say to me. It is bizarre how those who berate “lazy” teachers are now social justice warriors. Where was your outrage when 322 MPs voted against feeding the most disadvantaged children over half-terms? One of the only bastions of legitimate social mobility is education and the prized asset in education is its teachers’. We are contributing to the lives of these children, are you? As you seem to know the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child off by heart, where is this anger with the Education Secretary who still hasn’t delivered his promise of laptop provision for our most disadvantaged learners? There should be no selective amnesia when it comes to social justice. Schools have insurmountable pressures on them to be centres of education, care, support and very often a child’s second home. To berate those who are trying their best to provide children with the best opportunities to get on in life is deeply damaging, especially at a time where teacher morale is virtually rock bottom. These children do not need a celebrity to be their mouthpiece. They need an education system that provided them equality of opportunity, schools that are adequately resourced, staffed and funded and a democratic system that represents their concerns. Children have, of course, missed out on an education but the pandemic is simply exposing the deeper wounds of structural inequalities that have existed for generations. Yet whilst the poorest suffer, the more privileged are thriving and in some cases getting much richer. The current school meals scam demonstrates perfectly how the establishment view the public especially those in receipt of additional support. We need to challenge these inequalities to help fill these gaps rather than resort to racism and teacher bashing which no one benefits from, especially not our young people.
This global pandemic has been awfully managed by our government and one of the pillars of society the government has a vested interest in; education has suffered greatly. How do we support our lost disadvantaged learners? How do we ensure the quality of remote teaching matches that of the excellence in the classroom? This starts with providing every child with equal access and every school with adequate funding and resources to educate and liberate the young people in their care. Public pile-ons, teacher bashing, divisive rhetoric and judging from a position of comfort and detachment is hindering the work teachers’ are doing during these tough times. I challenge us to either meet somewhere in unity or for you to show us how it’s done. Ultimately, we all want the best for our young people, right? Teaching is like no other job. The social nature of our roles means we are also missing out of seeing our students engaged or the raw energy and inspiration the classroom provides us. As much as we miss our students and colleagues, the safety of our communities takes precedence.
If you are teaching bashing or upset with your schools or child’s school, please use the appropriate channels to relay your concerns. If you are really infuriated, why not train to be a teacher? I’m being serious, why not? I’ll even signpost you as we do have a retention and recruitment crisis. Either that or support us as the divisiveness helps no one. May be your anger should be at the missing track and trace system that cost the taxpayer billions and not your local school.
To all my teaching colleagues, you are doing incredibly well. As my late Grandfather used to say, “if you can’t see the goodness, be the goodness.” Thank you for all you have given me and all that you give to our great profession.
Finally, I would just like to commemorate those who have sadly lost their lives during this pandemic. Life is fragile and criminally short. Over 100,000 deaths with more than 1,500 announced today. It’s heartbreaking. Although our often grief-illiterate culture means we have the “keep calm and carry on” ethos, you will be remembered. Ameen. God bless Marcus Rashford too. X